Attention fiction aficionados! The new year has only just begun, but there are already some great new books hitting the bookshelves. We’ve rounded up 8 must-read new novels from independent publishers and small presses we think deserve a place on your nightstand.
If you’d like to purchase any of these books, we’d highly recommend seeking out your local independent bookstore. Your business helps ensure the survival of these vital cultural institutions during this difficult time.
1. Cathedral by Ben Hopkins
Fans of historical fiction from the likes of Umberto Eco, Hilary Mantel, and Ken Follett will delight at the atmosphere, the beautiful prose, and the vivid characters of Ben Hopkins’s Cathedral.
At the center of this story is the Cathedral. Its design and construction in the 12th and 13th centuries in the Rhineland town of Hagenburg unites a vast array of unforgettable characters whose fortunes are inseparable from the shifting political factions and economic interests vying for supremacy. From the bishop to his treasurer to local merchants and lowly stonecutters, everyone, even the town’s Jewish denizens, is implicated and affected by the slow rise of Hagenburg’s Cathedral, which in no way enforces morality or charity. Around this narrative center, Ben Hopkins has constructed his own monumental edifice, a novel that is rich with the vicissitudes of mercantilism, politics, religion, and human enterprise.
2. The Adventures and Misadventures of the Extraordinary and Admirable Joan Oprí, Conquistador and Founder of New Catalonia by Max Besora
A faux-historical romp about a real-life conquistador who founded New Catalonia in the wilds of Venezuela.
Joan Orpí (Piera, 1593 – New Barcelona, 1645) is one of the most unknown characters in Spanish history. In this torrential book we are told the odyssey that brought him first to Barcelona, later to Sevilla and finally to America, where he would experience all kinds of outlandish situations.
Using historical facts as raw material, and with stellar appearances of characters such as Miguel de Cervantes or the brigand Serrallonga among others, Besora converses with the satirical tradition of works such as Gargantua and Pantagruel, Gulliver’s Travels or Don Quixote, to paint a fresco of Catalonia in the seventeenth century and the Golden Age of the Spanish empire, creating a novel, fresh, sharp and bursting with exuberant adventures.
3. Sergeant Salinger by Jerome Charyn
J.D. Salinger, mysterious author of The Catcher in the Rye, is remembered today as a reclusive misanthrope. Jerome Charyn’s Salinger is a young American WWII draftee assigned to the Counter Intelligence Corps, a band of secret soldiers who trained with the British. A rifleman and an interrogator, he witnessed all the horrors of the war—from the landing on D-Day to the relentless hand-to-hand combat in the hedgerows of Normandy, to the Battle of the Bulge, and finally to the first Allied entry into a Bavarian death camp, where corpses were piled like cordwood.
After the war, interned in a Nuremberg psychiatric clinic, Salinger became enchanted with a suspected Nazi informant. They married, but not long after he brought her home to New York, the marriage collapsed. Maladjusted to civilian life, he lived like a “spook,” with invisible stripes on his shoulder, the ghosts of the murdered inside his head, and stories to tell.
Grounded in biographical fact and reimagined as only Charyn could, Sergeant Salinger is an astonishing portrait of a devastated young man on his way to becoming the mythical figure behind a novel that has marked generations.
4. The Hare by Melanie Finn
The Hare is an affecting portrait of Rosie Monroe, of her resilience and personal transformation under the pin of the male gaze.
Raised to be obedient by a stern grandmother in a blue-collar town in Massachusetts, Rosie accepts a scholarship to art school in New York City in the 1980s. One morning at a museum, she meets a worldly man twenty years her senior, with access to the upper crust of New England society. Bennett is dashing, knows that “polo” refers only to ponies, teaches her which direction to spoon soup, and tells of exotic escapades with Truman Capote and Hunter S. Thompson. Soon, Rosie is living with him on a swanky estate on Connecticut’s Gold Coast, naively in sway to his moral ambivalence. A daughter — Miranda — is born, just as his current con goes awry forcing them to abscond in the middle of the night to the untamed wilderness of northern Vermont.
Almost immediately, Bennett abandons them in an uninsulated cabin without a car or cash for weeks at a time, so he can tend a teaching job that may or may not exist at an elite college. Rosie is forced to care for her young daughter alone, and to tackle the stubborn intricacies of the wood stove, snowshoe into town, hunt for wild game, and forage in the forest. As Rosie and Miranda’s life gradually begins to normalize, Bennett’s schemes turn malevolent, and Rosie must at last confront his twisted deceptions. Her actions have far-reaching and perilous consequences.
5. Slash and Burn by Claudia Hernández
Through war and its aftermaths, a woman fights to keep her daughters safe.
As a girl, she sees her village sacked and her beloved father and brothers flee. Her life in danger, she joins the rebellion in the hills, where her comrades force her to give up the baby she conceives. Years later, having outlived countless men, she leaves to find her lost daughter, traveling across the Atlantic with meager resources. She returns to a community riven with distrust, fear, and hypocrisy in the wake of the revolution. Hernández’s narrators have the level gaze of ordinary women reckoning with extraordinary hardship. Denouncing the ruthless machismo of combat with quiet intelligence, Slash and Burn creates a suspenseful, slow-burning revelation of rural life in the aftermath of political trauma.
6. My Grandmother’s Braid by Alina Bronsky
Max lives with his grandparents in a residential home for refugees in Germany. When his grandmother—a terrifying, stubborn matriarch and a former Russian primadonna—moved them from the Motherland it was in search of a better life. But she is not at all pleased with how things are run in Germany: the doctors and teachers are incompetent, the food is toxic, and the Germans are generally untrustworthy.
His grandmother has been telling Max that he is an incompetent, clueless weakling since he was a child and she’d spend the day sitting in the back of his classroom to be sure he came to no harm. While he may be a dolt in his grandmother’s eyes, Max is bright enough to notice that his stoic and taciturn grandfather has fallen hopelessly in love with their neighbor, Nina. When a child is born to Nina that is the spitting image of Max’s grandfather, things come to a hilarious if dramatic head. Everybody will have to learn to defend themselves from Max’s all-powerful grandmother.
7. Testimony by Paula Martinac
In rural Virginia in 1960, history professor Gen Rider has secured tenure at Baines College, a private school for white women. A woman in a man’s field, she teaches “Negro” history, which has made her suspect with a powerful male colleague. Even while she’s celebrating her triumph, she’s also mourning the break-up of a long-distance relationship with another woman—a romance she has tightly guarded, even from her straight female mentor.
As the fall semester dawns, a male instructor at the college is arrested for having sex with a man in a park. Homosexual panic envelops the college town, launching a “Know Your Neighbor” reporting campaign. The police investigation directly threatens Gen’s friend Fenton, the gay theater director at Baines. But Gen finds herself vulnerable, too, when someone leaves mysterious “gifts” for her, including a suggestive pulp novel and a romantic card.
As Gen tentatively embarks on a new relationship, a neighbor reports she’s seen Gen kissing a woman, and hearings into her morality catch her in a McCarthy-like web. With her private life under the microscope, Gen faces an agonizing choice: Which does she value more, the career she’s scraped to build against the odds or her right to a private life?
8. The Crash Palace by Andrew Wedderburn
Audrey Cole has always loved to drive. Anytime, anywhere, any car: a questionable rustbucket, a family sedan, the SUV she was paid to drive around the oil fields. From the second she learned to drive, she’s always found a way to hit the road.
Years ago, when she abandoned her oil field job, she found herself chauffeuring around the Lever Men, a B-list band relegated to playing empty dive bars in far-flung towns. That’s how she found herself at the Crash Palace, an isolated lodge outside the big city where people pay to party in the wilderness.
And now, one night, while her young daughter is asleep at home, Audrey is struck by that old urge and finds herself testing the doors of parked cars in her neighborhood. Before she knows it, she’s headed north in the dead of winter to the now-abandoned Crash Palace in a stolen car, unable to stop herself from confronting her past